Southern Charm

The South (capital s included) does something strange to you. I lived there for the first two years of my life, and more recently the four years of college. I didn’t come back north of the Mason Dixon line often, so I can say that I lived down there. More often than not, I’d take my vacations in Savannah or Charleston, sometimes Atlanta, and one summer: all over the South. And as a result, I have this strange affinity for Southern things. I have this strange pride for Southern fare, be that food or houses or the draw; there is something that the South can do to you to make you fall in love.

As tried and true readers might know, I also have an affinity for cooking people lots of food. Sometimes it is lots of people lots of food, like last Sunday. I sent out an email around Thursday saying “I have a ton of food. I want to cook it. Come over and eat it. Bring nothing but yourself, hunger, and maybe a friend.” After a few responses, and knowledge that it wasn’t just going to be me and my roommate taking down a feast of food, I started to devise a plan.

The first ingredients that I looked at, which in turn shaped my entire menu, were collard greens. These leathery, huge, elephant ear-like greens are a staple in my southern diet. Anytime I see them on the menu, I get them. With bacon, or without. With maple syrup or without. Slow-cooked for about twelve hours so that they are best eaten with a spoon or only blanched and in that case, a knife would be honorable.

After that, my CSA veggies fell into place. Collards with Brooklyn cured ham. Cornbread biscuits with buttermilk. Mashed potatoes with a half pound of butter, and a half pound of cheddar cheese. A spinach salad with orange surpremes and braised balsamic onions.  Mustard roasted Squash and carrots so that they were soft, mushy, and freaking delectable. Coleslaw made of cabbage, celery root, and golden beets. Lentil soup with kale and parsnips (prepared like split pea soup). And for those brave enough to trudge on through another course, or those simply holding the idea that there must be a dessert as truth: banana cream pie.

 

The meal started at 8:15 and ended three hours later with a bottle of wine or three, courses and talk of New York and the South and all the meanwhile, sitting at the head of the table, I felt I had provided for my friends, just as any good Southern Family would. They traveled to me, so I fed them. It’s simply southern, in a third story Brooklyn apartment.

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How Perfect

It seems ironic — to a large degree — that I would be writing about a near perfect day, seeing as yesterday was anything but perfect. But the good days have to come with the bad, and there are some days that work out perfectly. Or almost perfectly, seeing as perfection is all but attainable.

Start: a wake up call from the rising sun through my window to which I see crisp blue skies and a few birds flying by. Note: yes this day is going to sound over the top with details such as “a few birds flying by” and yes, they are all true. Note: I didn’t prepare for such a perfect day so the pictures are limited. Enjoy the words.

Finding a cup of coffee already made out in my kitchen, I strapped on my running gear and headed out into the beautiful Brooklyn day for a seven mile run around neighborhoods and through Prospect Park, which was comfortably full of runners, joggers, walkers, talkers, bikers, players, loungers, and horses. Pause.

Restart: A nice shower and a clean room at my fingertips, I headed out with my roomie to find my new guilty pleasure at the little local coffee shop on the border of Bedstuy and Clinton Hill: a chai latte with a shot of espresso. Dirty Chai, she called out and I laughed at the name, and ordered one for myself.

The uncapped chai-coffee lasted maybe two blocks on our walk to a mecca of relaxation deep into Bedstuy: a closed spa (50 dollars for an hour long massage ain’t nothing to sneeze at), hair salon, café/brunch spot, and a Candela store. Perfection.

We didn’t tend to our appearances, rather we ate brunch at this café which was named none other than the “Biggie Bedstuy Brunch.” Belgium waffle, turkey bacon, cheesy eggs, maple syrup, two coffees. We listened to good music and talked about new neighborhoods to which to move. I laughed too loud a few times and made the counter person look my way. After a delicious brunch, and buying a piece of their carrot cake (which was about three pounds of cake) for the later times, we headed out and I met up with a dear friend to walk around Park Slope and find a place to sit and talk and catch up and plan and.

We tried a few coffee shops but, anywhere and everywhere in Park Slope is nonstop laptop-ville. Honestly we walked into three places only to find twenty or thirty people with twenty or thirty computers, staring, listening to music, “working.”

On ward ho! We made it to café Grumpy in Park Slope which does a delicious pour over and a wonderful Flat White (like a cappuccino or cortado but less milk and more foam).  Note: carrot cake still in hand.

Two hours later, after telling stories and the like, I had to book it back to Fort Greene to set up a CSA distribution. Carrots and Parsnips and Beets and Celeriac and Rutabaga and Spinach and Onions and Garlic and Potatoes were on the menu this time. So for that, I sat at the bar, drank a glass of red wine and made little recipe cards. Soups! Next time, maybe some coconut milk kale. Note: carrot cake still in hand.

The distribution closed early, so I headed out to meet up with an infant weekly supper club with a friend from years ago. We had the hardest of times trying to figure out a place to go. Our conclusion? The Dutch in Soho. It’s delicious with an amazingly vibrant space.

We didn’t have any reservations, but we charged our way through to the bar and waited for a table. Only four sips into an amazing rum-bitters-orange drink were we being asked to sit in a corner table overlooking the whole bar area. Perfect.

The menu was unreal. Lauren and I tried to narrow it down, but really we could only take like three things off the menu. Instead, we decided to do two fried oyster sliders, one appetizer, two seconds, and…. Two desserts.

Note: Lauren and I aren’t what you would call big eaters at first glance. The waitress didn’t flinch and wished us luck. We drove through every bite.

Three hours after we sat down, and steak tartar with romaine, quail egg, olives, homemade Caesar, and short rib pot roast with golden turnips, stout and caraway and red wine reduction pan sauce, and beautiful halibut with yuzu butter sauce, tobiko, winter garden vegetables, and sour cream apple pie with walnut ice cream, and toffee cake with a grapefruit glaze that I want to recreate later, we reveled in the fact that we didn’t need reservations, and just had a symphony of flavors from drinks to oysters through to dessert to the fact that we had sat there long enough o have digested some of the food and not felt too full.

Hopping on the subway home after making sure that we were going to do that again next Monday, to make the day more perfect, I stumbled on the same car as my roommate. I wore her hat, and we told each other about the day and spoke too loudly and accumulated some stares and didn’t stop talking until we parted ways in our kitchen.

How. Perfect.

 

 

 

Making Whoopie

 When I was a kid. A kid younger than I am now, I remember loving the Game Show Network. For some reason, old game shows really made m happy, made me want to learn more, and kept me interested. Press Your Luck. The Newlywed Game. Ten thousand dollar Pyramid. The Match Game.  Password. Win Ben Stein’s Money. The Price is Right. Card Sharks. It’s all about using your mind and trying to win money and at the same time, make the audience laugh. I would sit on the couch, against my anxious desires to get up and run around and probably break things, and watch these adults laugh with each other as they surely made some snide culturally appropriate comment about sex or art or politics. It might have been the fact that I never knew exactly what they were referring to, or because all of the issues they were talking about in side commentary was never really relevant, but I loved getting sucked into that time period. I loved watching the muted colors dance across the screen and watching people winning seven hundred dollars and jumping up and down because they could buy a vacation for the family now! Or A NEW CAAAAR!

Each show had its own special catch phrase – Higher or lower for Card Sharks, Wammy for press your luck, and Whoopee for the Newlyweds. Even as a little kid, I always knew what they were meaning to say but couldn’t when they casually said “making whoopee.” What exactly was that? The only reference I had were whoopie pies – a Boston snack dessert sweet thing.  Go figure I was a food nerd from the start.

And now, with the pastry competition growing (see: cupcakes, macaroons are both huge and the next thing is soon to come out…) bakeries are trying to find that next fad. One of my favorite bakeries – Baked – based out of Charleston and Red Hook, Brooklyn, make the most delicious Whoopie pies. They make whoopie, not whoopee.

The history of whoopie pies is rooted in Boston, but now I associate it with summer snacks around four, when your blood sugar dips just enough for you want to take a nap. They are two cakey-cookies that act as wonder bread around a sweet filling (see: thick custard, icing, jam, what have you). Do you remember those Little Debbie oatmeal sandwich cookies that Paula Dean would love because they are maybe all butter? Yeah, that’s kind of like a whoopie pie.

Maybe it was inspiration from watching the Game Show Network over the holidays, or maybe it was my most recent trip to Baked in Red Hook, but I wanted to make my own. Banana cake-cookies with cream cheese frosting sitting plump in between the two sandwich layers.

With Sam Cooke and Otis Redding serenading me, taking me back to the 1960’s to really get into the feeling of the Newlywed Game, I took a banana bread recipe and tweaked it a bit to give more of a cake consistency and cooked them as cookies, dropping tablespoons of batter on a cookie sheet and baking at 350 for about ten minutes.

The results, accompanied by a smooth cream cheese frosting, were decadent, and indulgent. Much like sitting at home, on a rainy day, and watching episode after episode on the Game Show Network, hoping someone maybe blush and say “making whoopee.”

Starting To Get Warm

When I look back on last winter, I remember a tiger onesie that acted as my heat – seeing as my Korean-style warmed-floor heat was broken – biting cold that, one day, left me crumpled up in a ball along the Han River rocking back and forth hoping for blood to restore to its rightful place in my hands, coats that never kept me quite warm enough, and some delicious foods. Kimchi and soup and stews and lots of barbeque. I remember some pitchers of watered down beer and the first endeavors into what was higher-class Korean cooking. I also remember a little venture into Thailand to escape the cold.

This winter, Brooklyn has been so much the kinder with mild days in the 30s and 40s and sometimes 60s. Runs in shorts and long sleeved t-shirts and coffee outside and even wind breaker jackets all create a thread of a winter affected by global warming. I mean, come on, no one’s kidding here – it is real people.

Sure we’ve had a few snow flurries and nights have become cold enough that I don’t want to bike home because my bare hands touching a metal lever to use the breaks doesn’t sound like a wining combination. But on the whole, this winter has been tepid. Luke-warm. One that, to my warnings for friends from California of “It gets so cold that you don’t even want to go outside despite the shining blue skies,” has left me a liar.

Until, really, now. Now it is cold. Now it hurts to walk outside with a hand exposed to hold the cell phone to my ear. Now I bundle down into my hood and jacket and sip hot coffee to warm my insides. Now I crave hot chocolate and hot cheese. Now I want for movies under blankets. Now I am a bear and start to hibernate.

No more salads, either. When it gets this cold, I don’t want “fresh” per se. I want cooked and soothing. I want comfort food, but not in the Southern typical fried cheesy mess that comes out with chicken and mashed potatoes and collards and corn bread and some pumpkin pie. Well, I don’t want that kind of comfort food, always – that is. More, I want warmed breads with local fat-full butter and a steaming hot soup.

With my CSA share (yes, folks, CSAs happen in the winter too! And it’s not ALL beets!), I’ve been able to explore some pretty amazing soups to help me through the cold days and warm me up after a long run. They also are great for freezing and moving forward in life with. Together.

The most recent soup adventure I went on was guided by my work place’s amuse-bouche. Before you start on your main meal (be that just an entrée, or an appetizer, too), the chefs come out and give you a gift from the kitchen to excite your palate: an amuse-bouche. Often a soup and some hot potato croquets, the amuse-bouche is a wonderful surprise and generous offer from the chefs of your meal.

They’ve been doing some potato-leek or parsnip soups as of late, and that just sounds splendid on chilly days. Rooty, nutty, rich, earthy; sustenance.

With the muse of my workplace, and the box of root vegetables sitting in the refrigerator, I took to a 400 degree oven with about seven parsnips, four carrots, one acorn squash, one onion, five cloves of garlic, seven potatoes, olive oil from Italy, truffle salt, pepper, and forty minutes.

On the stove’s top sat sixteen ounces of vegetable stock, ten ounces of water, two browned cloves of garlic, peanut oil, and sesame oil, with touches of salt and pepper. Simple seasonings, for simple goodness. Cliché? Sorry.

After forty minutes, the veggies (turned once during their stay in the warm oven) hopped into the veggie stock, and sat for another twenty minutes.

Armed with my masher (no immersion blender, yet!), I mashed my way through the squash, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, onions, and garlic. A quick staycation in a blender with the help of about a quarter-cup of water per three cups of soup, made this soup a pureed dream.

Now, after only about an hour and fifteen, sits nearly ten cups of silky smooth, nutty (see: parsnips!), earthy (see: truffle salt!), slightly sweet (see: parsnips! Carrots! Squash!), umami based (see: sesame oil! Peanut oil!) soup with depth and a subtle burst of flavor.

In front of my third story window, looking out over the bare trees and setting sun’s light on the brownstones across the way, next to a window that lets just a small amount of fresh crisp frigid air in, I topped my steam-dancing soup with some parmesan and pepper and felt fully warm and content during the depths of winter.